Playing in a Pro-Am: An Amazing Once-in-a-Lifetime Golf Experience

JJ Henry is known as one of the nicest guys on the PGA Tour and it's true. I know because he was my pro-am partner in the 2010 Mayakoba Golf Classic, the only PGA Tour event in Mexico.

Love golf? Sure you do or you wouldn’t be reading this.

If you love golf, there are a few things that get on your bucket list, things passionate golfers need to do at least once in their lifetime.

Go across the pond and play The Old Course at St. Andrews, plus any other number of great links in Scotland and Ireland.

Experience one of America’s quadrilateral of great golf resorts, easily the best in the world: Pebble Beach, Pinehurst, Kohler, or Bandon Dunes.

Play in a pro-am.

That’s it – everything else you do in your life of golf travel is gravy.

Why is playing in a pro-am such a big deal? Let me count the ways.

1. It is the closest you will ever get to experiencing what it’s like to play on Tour (any tour – there are pro-ams for the PGA, Champions, LPGA even Nationwide, something for every budget and destination).

Hundreds of thousands of golfers have played Tour venue courses, but it not nearly the same thing. Go to TPC Scottsdale and play it right now and you will find a resort friendly course. Go play in the pro-am of the FBR Open (now Waste Management) as I did last year, and you will find thick gnarly rough, roped off tees, greens and fairways, the pressure of tens of thousands of spectators, cameras, leader boards, stands, caddies (it’s usually just carts) and most of all, the fastest greens you have ever experienced, 14 on the stimpmeter the day I played.

Playing most courses used for Tour events, even Majors,  means playing the same course the pros played on. Playing in a pro-am means paying it the way the pros play it. Huge difference. Why do you think hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, a legitimate single digit handicapper, could not break 100 in the recent pre-US Open exhibition at Pebble Beach under Open conditions, when most days he could go to Pebble and maybe break 80?

2. You get to play with a PGA Tour (Or LPGA, etc.) professional. Draw a big name like John Daly or Mike Weir or Ernie Els and it will be a great story, but draw any touring pro and you will see the best golf of your lifetime. You can’t appreciate it on TV or even form the gallery. The drives sound like a supersonic jet taking off in your living room. I just played in the pro-am of the Reno Tahoe Open last week with Kevin Streelman, currently ranked an even 100th on the PGA Tour money list, a guy lots of fans have never heard of. Nonetheless, he played essentially a perfect round of golf, hitting every fairway and all but three greens (two of those missed were second shots on par-5s, and just barely), making half a dozen birdies and no mistakes. It’s a different game, and one worth seeing.

3. The Best Stories: Every single pro-am I have played in (six PGA Tour events to date, plus the pro-am at the British Senior Open at Royal County Down!) left me with funny stories, about my playing partners, the pros, the caddies, stories good and bad. Some of the pros are standoffish, but some are eager to please: a golf writer friend of mine got paired with Fred Couples, and Couples spent ten minutes giving him a quick bunker play lesson. What’s the chance of that happening in any other setting? The pros and their caddies will give you distance and if asked, read putts. When I hit a 5-wood from 215 out on a long par-4 to 8 feet for a birdie try, Stuart Appleby, my partner, could not wait to give me the read. The read was perfect, I made it, and I probably would have missed on my own.

3. Be a VIP. You are inside the ropes, wearing the belt badge the pros wear, often with a caddie, having access to the otherwise off limit clubhouse – for “Players” only. Again, it’s the closest you will be to being out on Tour yourself.

4. Party!!! Pro-ams are all about the parties. There is always one the night before, the drawing party, to pair amateurs and pros. There is always one that starts the minute you walk off 18. There is breakfast, lunch and dinner the day of the event, and free flowing booze, usually in the same private clubhouse bar the [players can use, so you can overlook 18 and watch the other groups come in as you sip your champagne.

5. Swag. Free stuff, and lots of it. You always get an event golf shirt, hat and dozen balls, and then there’s all kinds of other stuff. At the FBR, the pro-am included a couple of thousand of dollars worth of gifts, from Oakley sunglasses to a bottle of rare Johnnie Walker Blue whiskey to a travel humidor and a couple of complete golf outfits, pants, shirts, shorts, even belts. At the Canadian Open I got a new Taylor Made R9 driver and Adidas shoes. At the Viking Classic, I fittingly got Viking gourmet products including a commercial frying pan, carving knife and stainless steel toaster. At Hilton Head’s Heritage I got a leather travel bag, bottle of wine, bottle of vodka, and a coupon for  several hundred dollar shopping spree in a tented mini-mall that candled everything from sunglasses to Cole Haan dress shoes. The Reno Tahoe Open had a similar clothing shopping spree, plus Oakleys, Nike golf shoes, and a Bushnell laser rangefinder. At the Mayakoba Classic in Mexico I got a travel garment bag, wine, a cigar humidor and cutter, a wedge, and a bunch of clothes.

6. Entourage. You also get plenty of stuff for your friends and spouse. Hell your wife, husband or buddy can even be your caddie, giving them their own once in a lifetime experience. All pro-am packages include VIP clubhouse passes for the actual 4-day tournament, plus sky box tickets, extra general admission tickets, valet parking, everything you need to treat a large group of friends right.

7. Prizes. Okay you can’t count on this because you might not win, but with handicaps and a lucky pro draw you never know. I finished in the money twice and I’m not very useful on the golf course. At Reno we just got crystal plates, but when my team took second in the celebrity pro-am the day before the main pro-am at the FBR, we each got a gift certificate for a custom set of Ping clubs (I donated mine, thank you very much) and even more free stuff. There are usually also random drawings for door prizes.

There's no guarantee that you will win a prize by playing in a pro-am - or get to meet Miss Nevada. But then again, you might just do both - our team did! Photo: Mike Buteau

8. Other extras: While most pro-ams are one day affairs with a party the night before, there are exceptions. At the Heritage on Hilton Head, one of the best, the package includes a practice round Monday on Harbour Town, where the Wednesday pro-am is, and then another am-am tournament on a local course Tuesday, complete with more swag and more prizes, making it a 3-day event – plus the tournament itself.

I hope that’s enough reasons why you should play in a pro-am.

Next I’ll give you the lowdown on the experience and details, then tell you how and where to go try it yourself.

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